(Author’s note: This is the first in a series of interviews with members of the Anderson Valley Volunteer Fire Department prepared in response to requests from AV Fire Chief Andres Avila and the AVA.)
Battalion Chief Roy Laird has been on the Anderson Valley Volunteer Fire Department for 30 years (with a few years off when his long haul trucking job got in the way), his anniversary was last May. Popular psychology tells us that people who are responsive and resilient are the very best kind for surviving and thriving. With 30 years of responding to fires and other emergencies here in our valley Roy Laird is at the top of the modern experience ladder. Most of us non-volunteers would have a hard time imagining the things that Roy and his fellow volunteers are called upon to manage. I know that matters of life and death are too real for me most of the time. When someone is bleeding, a house is on fire or car is overturned I look around for someone to take charge. Roy is that someone.
I asked him how he got started.
In 1984 he bought the Saw Shop from Butch Paula around the time that Doug and Bev Elliot moved in across the street. Since he was going to be at the Saw Shop all day he was a good candidate to respond with the tender parked at the Elliot’s, so he became a reserve volunteer. That summer he lived in Rancho Navarro and a close neighbor had a travel trailer that went up in flames behind a locked gate right down the hill from his house. Roy’s goats and chickens and other livestock were in jeopardy. As he was rushing to the fire thinking about what to save and manning his small garden hose, the CalFire air tankers swooped in overhead and he decided that it was time to learn more about what went into fighting fires. At this point he became a regular volunteer. I had not realized it but there are now nine fire stations in Anderson Valley two of which are inactive; Yorkville, Boonville, Old Philo, New Philo, Old Navarro, New Navarro, Signal Ridge, Holmes Ranch, and Fish Rock Road. Each station has a Captain and a Lieutenant. Roy worked first with the Navarro group and four years after becoming a regular volunteer he became the Captain.
Volunteers commit to a general training with their station and a zone training where different stations combine. There are once a month trainings on specific subjects like “pumping operations” which sometimes include weekends plus joint medical trainings four times a year too.
I asked Roy what volunteers get out of their demanding commitments.
He told me that the work is VERY rewarding. At a recent party at Sharon Sullivan’s house he said he looked around at the guests and realized that as a volunteer he had touched the lives of at least half of the people there. He said that although it may sound corny, it really does give meaning to your life. “If you like helping people this is a very real way to do it.” He told me that he has absolutely no regrets about the time he has put in. It is an opportunity to be the first one on scene to help people through what just might be the worst day of their entire lives.
I asked Roy if he could remember something that was particularly meaningful to him as a fireman/emergency worker.
He recalled arriving at a “TC” or traffic collision where a young girl had been in a severe crash and had to be extricated from the car and sent out by helicopter. Usually volunteers do not know the follow-up on the people they help; but in this case she came back to the Valley with her father a year later to a training to personally thank the volunteers for saving her. He told me that often people think of success in financial terms but to him the story of this girl was a real success.
I asked how volunteers deal with the aftermath of seeing the things they see and hearing the things they hear.
He said that new recruits are reminded that we don’t put these people in these situations, we are just there to help them out. He said that sometimes it does “get to you” and you feel like “that shouldn’t have happened.” Some members of the AV Emergency response crew are specially trained to debrief in a safe setting where nothing leaves the room, especially after a fatality. There is a family feeling among the volunteers and they support each other wholeheartedly.
Roy told me that politics, sexual orientation and finances definitely don’t matter — team is there when they are needed. He said volunteers are well-rounded people who get along. There is always a place for anyone who really wants to help.
Roy personally thinks he was fortunate that his temperament matches the job. He likes to get involved, he likes moving into an unfolding scene and he doesn’t tend to panic. As a bonus, he said, you get used paying attention to what is right in front of you at the moment and to things going on around you which is invaluable in dealing with many other situations in your personal life.
I ventured to say that this serious committed and responsible type of volunteering has a maturing effect on the individuals involved and he agreed with me. I learned that in California 63% of firefighters are volunteers. However in our difficult economy where people often have to work more than one job to make ends meet, finding volunteers, especially younger ones is increasingly difficult. There are 200 square miles in the AV Volunteer Fire Department’s jurisdiction — a lot of territory to protect and defend.
The rewards for each volunteer are very significant. Roy describes himself as an introvert, which sort of surprised me, as he is very affable and forthcoming in conversation. Nevertheless he considers himself not unsocial but more asocial. Truth be told there are a lot of us here in Anderson Valley who fit that profile: we like people but we could easily stay put on the old homestead tending the garden, the animals, endless creative projects and forget to see other people for days on end. The Fire Department and the Ambulance Service are two very good ways for us friendly hermits to stay engaged with our fellow humanoids while doing a very good thing for our community.
Volunteering seems to feed a deep need that is seated deep in our hearts to be a rooted part of our group and to really care. If you are looking for a way to be more connected and believe that the best way to get something done is to ask a busy person to do it, consider calling Chief Avila at the Boonville firehouse and ask him about joining or contributing in some way: (707) 895-2020.
You would be working with very high caliber committed people. There really is no substitute for service when it comes to finding the really good people and things in life. Note: Roy Laird has a small engine repair business and his wife Pam Laird has a beautiful produce and flower stand called Blue Meadow Farm at 3301 Holmes Ranch Road just off Highway 128. Call 895-2071 for more information.
(Next week: AV Training Officer Clay Eubank.)